Full House

Good morning passengers; a service of
Christian, Protestant worship will begin
in twenty minutes in Sojourners’
chapel.

The invitation echoed down each elevated
concourse, every traveler given notice
of divine, heavenly worship, materializing
just steps away from them. In twenty minutes
time, the airport would become holy
ground. Unfortunately, the public address
system, now thirty-one years old, translated
the message into its own exotic tongue:
goo mooing pissers, a cervix of Chrizjan Prostate
wooship will begin in tawny minarets in
Soda’s caper.

The Reverend Jack Pullman exhaled
and looked up at the clock, a nervous smile
spread across his face, a smile marking a
familiar dread, as one might greet a long
absent friend complaining of a slight case
of typhus.

The fog had rolled in off the Sound and
had not lifted. There were thunderstorms in
the forecast for later that morning. Delays
were bound to pile up. And with nowhere
to go, perhaps a congregation would wander
into his chapel. With four months to go
before retirement, just once Jack Pullman
hoped to preach in front of a full house, the
faithful streaming in from the four corners
of the earth.

So far that year, forty seven-souls had
appeared during the scheduled time for
worship, six of those to pray especially for
lost luggage, four were in search of changing
tables, eleven staggered in, claiming
they were persons of biblical importance:
two Eves; one Moses, one John the Baptist,
still attached to his head; two Marys, the
Mothers of Jesus; three Mary Magdalenes,
the lovers of Jesus; and two Saviors, Christ
Jesuses, the Lords.

Pullman’s direct supervisor also allowed
sixteen men and women from the
Iowa City Optimist Club to be in that number.
They needed a place to hold their own
meeting as they were en route to their annual
Spring mercy trip to some of the poorer
neighborhoods in and around the Latin
Quarter of Paris. The others rounding out
the total were individuals who came from
one of the many guilt-ridden denominations,
on their way to visit their ancestral
homelands, which, they would soon discover,
had given up on guilt a century earlier.

Pullman spread out his wrinkled manuscript,
a third sermon in a series on the
comfort of God, entitled, It’s Alright, Even
When It’s All Wrong
. Small changes were
highlighted in the margins, words were
crossed out, then put back, seventy-two
dates had been written in and then crossed
out, each date representing a worship service
with no-shows.

Illustrations were kept on a separate
sheet, from the past year. Pullman chose
each example for its universal appeal and
poignancy, but world events, natural or unnatural
came and went, as did scenes from
hit movies, characters out of best sellers,
heroics from the world of sports, even celebrated
advertisements, did not keep their
initial “pop appeal,” as Pullman once explained
to an uninterested guard.

Even so, every few months it was clear
to Pullman that a dated example needed
to be substituted for something fresher and
more contemporary, even up-to-the-minute.
He looked down at the present illustrations
and sighed. It had been now three
months since the stock market plunged
over two hundred fifty-nine points, a wonderful
homiletical occurrence. But since
then, it had gained two hundred thirty-seven, or an aggregate fall of only twenty-two
points. It was no use, the stock market
illustration had to go, leaving him with no
pop appeal to anchor his homily. No, he
determined, twenty-two points cannot in
any way convey the remotest trauma or pathos.
Pullman felt ashamed that he had
waited so long to change it, “Should have
discarded it at a hundred twenty five.” His
hands fretted, circling a stock market slide
along with denied, confide, abide-words in
the text that flowed so nicely with it. He
would have to give up those words if slide
were taken out, along with the rest of the
illustration. He circled them, but did not
cross them out. With only minutes before
the service, he would have to come up with
something, some dominant image to weave
together all the aspects of the meditation,
about the only thing around the airport
which had never taken off.

As Pullman brooded over the change,
the public address system announced that
the cervix was now ten minutes away. He
peered out the one small window in Sojourners’
Chapel, nearly opaque with the
wash of ten thousand take-offs. And as
he had hoped, the fog gave way to a steady
rain, with the repeated rumblings of what
sounded like thunder in the middle distance.
The Reverend felt encouraged,
enough to post the title of the message in
the small glass case just outside Sojourners’
Chapel, only four hundred ninety-seven
strides from the main concourse. Just
a left, a right, and two more lefts, and a
soul from any nation could enter for a time
of solace, worship, and the easy fellowship
strangers can share.

It had been some time since anything
like a congregation has gathered before
him. Lost luggage was now being stored
on the back pews. And though his superior
made it very clear that this was to be
an absolutely temporary situation, and had
nothing at all to do with attendance, still
Pullman was almost comforted by the fifty-nine
cases, found each day in their familiar
places. He hadn’t preached to the suitcases,
but he did wonder about the lives who once
carried and pulled them. He had checked
them over, knowing each one by its color,
size and scuff. Seventeen of the cases wore
bumper stickers: One climbed Mt. Washington.
Another thought Edmund Muskie
would make a fine president. Another
wanted the Catholic Church evicted from
her womb; still another thought the government
should make periodic inspections into
hers and others. Another, severely dented
and disfigured, thought it good to inform
all that Jesus was that particular person’s
copilot. One had an identification tag that
said: “Take what you want, I’ve no need for
it anymore.” Pullman was
tempted to open that one,
but never did.

What a marvelous
congregation represented
by these suitcases,
Pullman thought. Such
interesting people–traveled,
opinionated certainly,
some rightly proud of achievements. Thunder
rumbled again, this time shaking the outside
glass. Pullman smiled, as if he could finally
deliver this most important message. It’s
Alright, Even When It’s All Wrong
. The letters
comprising the title, too many he had
thought, just fit in the case.

A siren grew as he looked down the
empty corridor, the long, white canvas that
he had walked, the one that had taken in
his shadowed silhouette for twenty-seven
years; the long corridor that led to the
most holy spot in the airport complex. A
rolling boil of what sounded like thunder
shook the walls, followed by nine thuds in
quick succession. And Pullman thought
he could hear them, the sounds of people,
many people, heading down the hallway toward
the Sojourners’ Chapel. It sounded
like a stampede to him, as the emergency
horn was now echoing in every concourse
and room, and the faintest haze of smoke
could be seen from below the lights. Under
his feet Pullman could feel the vibrations
of thousands of shoes, and a single moan
came through the floor, caroming off the
corridor walls as if a game-ending goal had
just missed the crossbar. He gave a little chuckle, thinking how silly he was to expect
much of anything coming his way.

Pullman straightened out his clerical
collar and adjusted his purple vestments so
they were perfectly even. Surely this was
going to be a blessed and tremendous day,
despite the lack of worshipers. Even so,
he held out hope that a handful, even a few,
would come his way. “Where two or three
are gathered, there is God in the midst of
them.” Pullman had hung that banner up
himself, after returning from his most recent
clergy conference.

The siren, horns, exploding sounds
of thunder, thudding, the pounding of a
thousand shoes and cries, and now a pop,
pop, popping sound, like popcorn going off
a concourse away, it all made it difficult to
make out that his phone was ringing. Pullman
looked up at the clock, hung his head,
and made his usual prayer that God would
send one or two souls his way, though he
coveted twenty five. Pullman turned on
the tape of his favorite hymns, Be Still My
Soul chimed out for a moment before the
electricity went off. A perfect hymn to
match the sermon; he fiddled with the plug
when he remembered the phone was still
ringing. He walked over to it, searching
his mind for some illustration that might
hold a traveler’s attention that morning.
But there was no time now, the plunge of
the stock market, just twenty-two points,
would have to do.

Thom Fiet is a clergyman serving two congregations in
God’s Hudson Valley.